Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A New Version of "Cows Don't Talk, Silly."

I took one of my stories to a Writer's Workshop. The story was one of my personal favorites. The good people at the workshop just tore it to shreds. Yet in the most loving possible way. I needed everything they gave me. I am grateful to all the In Harmony participants.

The first version appears earlier on this blog. One biggest thing I learned at the workshop was the need for consistency, not just in voice, but in place and time as well. Interesting how it never occurred to me the first time.

Here is the new, workshopped version:


Jimmy offered a peanut to the pigeon. The bird cocked her head, deciding if she could trust him. The other birds jumped and strutted in a loose circle around him. He loved the birds, their bird sounds and the fuss they made.



Ever since he started Fifth Grade, Jimmy's mother had begun letting him walk down to the corner market for bread when she needed it. She used to send his older brother, George, but George often came home with a big wad of bubble gum in his mouth or a comic book, and Momma’s change was always short. Anyway, George was older now and had other things he was doing. When Jimmy went for bread, he made sure Momma’s change was right.

When the weather got colder, Jimmy wore his brother's boots to the store. He watched as the birds poked around in the cracks of the sidewalk and picked at the shiny wrappers that blew along the curb looking for something to eat. With fewer plants and bugs than in Summer, he knew they must be hungry.

One cold, grey day, when the first snow had collected in the nooks and crannies of the city, he surprised himself at the market counter with a loaf of bread . . . and a little bag of peanuts. In the little park halfway home, he stopped and fed the hungry birds. They were so happy, he didn't eat any peanuts himself. When the bag was mostly empty, he poured the little peanut hearts onto the grass and the birds jumped all over each other to get at them. He felt good, even kind of warm inside against the cold.

When he walked up the stoop that day, he paused before grabbing the cold doorknob, he could see that look on Momma's face when his brother had stood there chomping on bubble gum and handing her the crumpled plastic grocery bag with the half smooshed loaf of bread inside. In the bag hanging from Jimmy's hand just off the ground, the loaf he'd bought that day was fine. He had carried it carefully, but the seventy nine cents for peanuts missing from Momma’s change was burning a hole in his pocket. He took a breath and trudged in the door in his brother’s too big boots.

Momma was rattling pots in the kitchen making supper. When she came into the foyer, he handed her the bag but looked at the floor. He shook his arms until his puffy winter coat slid off the back of his shoulders and fell on the kitchen floor. The big zipper made a funny clunk on the tiles. The long sleeve of his shirt bunched up as he dug into his pocket for Momma's change; the short change. When he handed her the money, he smiled shyly at her warm face. She dropped the assorted coins into her jar and absentmindedly shuffled the bills, counting them. She worked at another store and counted money all the time. Her hands stopped at the end of the bills and she looked at him; not angry, just blank-like.

She scanned him standing there, her eyes twitching from his face to the coat on the floor. For a long minute, she didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sticky on his face or his hands. His lips weren't smacking on bubble gum too big for his mouth. He wasn’t carrying a comic or some cheap toy. A twinkle passed across Momma’s eyes and the corners of her mouth nearly turned up in a stifled smile.

“Huh, the price of bread went up a little.” Momma said. She tussled his hair and went back to preparing supper.

He stifled his own smile then, and turned to put the coat and his brother’s boots away. Momma seemed to understand that he had done something unselfish, something good. Maybe she didn’t mind, like when he wanted to tell his grade school jokes to her friends. She had heard all his jokes before but always laughed when the friend laughed. He could tell when an adult laughed only to be nice. Momma laughed as hard as she could.



Spring had started to sneak in under the snow. His little park had bits of color again. The grays and browns of Winter started to have little stains of green and yellow around the edges. The birds probably had stuff to eat, but he still brought peanuts every couple of weeks. Momma didn't seem to mind. Today, he had walked a little deeper into the park. The birds knew who brought their peanuts, and they soon surrounded him, cooing and fluttering their wings.

The birds made him laugh. They climbed all over each other and pushed and shoved to get at his peanut treats. Their wrestling reminded him of when he and his brother used to horse around together. When he pitched three peanuts at once, five birds crashed together and rolled around. Two birds, tired of the ruckus, flew up to a tree branch over the cement pathway. He liked it when the birds flew. They beat at the air with their wings and, almost by magic, let go of the earth and went wherever they wanted. Being a bird must be real cool, he thought.

His eyes left the flying birds, and he saw a lady sitting on a bench not too far away. He could see she was sad; crying maybe. Her eyes were moistened with little tears that shyly crept down her cheek. Momma was sad once in a while, and he knew sadness, too. The lady looked down at the path, but she wasn’t really looking at anything. He shook the peanut bag empty, scattering little kernels at his feet. The remaining birds fluttered while the lady wiped a tear off her cheek. When his Mom got sad, he would tell her one of his best jokes. If it was just the two of them, she wouldn’t laugh so much, but Momma would usually stop crying after a really good joke or two, so he knew the jokes worked.

Cutting straight across the path, he put the peanut wrapper in a big green trash can. He brushed the front of his jacket and pushed at the bottom snap until it clicked. The lady sat her coffee cup down and leaned to straighten her coat. He wasn’t supposed to tell jokes to strangers when Momma wasn’t with him, but he wanted to tell this lady a good one. Trying to be brave, he walked toward the bench. The sleeves swished against his jacket and made swishy zoom sounds. His shoes shuffled and scratched in the leftover winter sand. He got to the bench and stood by the lady. Usually a stranger would look at him when he stopped right in front of them, but the lady didn’t move for a minute. He heard her sniffle and slowly she looked up. She tried to smile but just looked at him; puzzled.

“What did the cow say to the farmer?” he asked her. His voice sounded funny in his own head, but he got the whole joke out without a mistake.

The lady’s makeup was bunched up around her eyes, and on one side of her face a smear and a little black line that rolled down toward the side of her chin. She looked at him for a couple long minutes. She didn’t smile, but he saw a wave of friendliness roll across her face like she had borrowed someone else’s happy face, but it only drifted by and didn’t stay put.

“I don’t know. What did the cow say to the farmer?” She had a nice voice and talked softly like some of his teachers did. Her eyes got a little brighter and warmer.

Slowly, with practiced nonchalance and perfect comic timing, he put a fist on each hip and cocked his head like a mother does when she tells her kids something happy. He took a nervous breath.

“Cows don’t talk, Silly,” he said with as big a smile as he could make.

The lady choked and then smiled softly. The choke was more a laugh than a sob, but it sounded to him like both at the same time. She took a tissue from her coat pocket and wiped her eyes. She reached out, still smiling, and stroked the sleeve of his jacket making that same zoomy sound against the fabric. Her smile twisted one way, then the other, and opened up spreading across her face. It was that other happy face again, but now it was happy all over and it stuck.

“Thank you,” she said with a funny quiver in her nice voice.

He felt funny; sort of floating in a way he had never known. There was a little tingle in his fingertips and under his earlobes. This must be how a bird feels, he thought.

“OK . . . ,” he said, “I mean, you’re welcome.”

He didn’t know what else to do, but it felt like he made the lady happy again; just like he did for Momma. His feet crunched as they twisted in the sand, and he turned to go. Two steps toward home, he heard the lady’s voice call after him.

“Don’t forget your bread. Doesn’t that grocery bag belong to you?”

I'm back ...

Well, I've decided to return to Blogger as host for my ramblings. As I look to departing aboard Bella in June, 2015, I am taking a close look at how I want to spend my boat money. Renting cyberspace for my anemic, untraveled, yet untrammelled blogs never made sense, I suppose. I am but a humble traveller, I will act more like it. Cheers and stay tuned.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Stuck at the Traveler's Inn

From a creativity challenge; the theme was 'loss.'

The mirror shook as a Semi rumbled by out front. Frank tapped his yellowed fingernails on the microwave and stared at the dingy wall. He turned to look in the room. The loose-jointed, cigarette burned furniture could be traded out for newer, but the walls had a patina that yet another coat of paint just couldn't cover. From the nicotine stained curtains, to the psychedelic clouds of corroded silvering creeping at the edges of the mirror, the room was more than 'lived in,' the dark film of 'suffered in' was on everything.

No one aspired to be a weekly tenant at the Traveler's Inn, it was the kind of thing that snuck up on you. The place was usually quiet, especially the weeks when the cops hadn't come. Frank couldn't remember exactly how long he'd been in the room, or at the motel for that matter. He thought he had moved once from one room to another. There were a lot of things he couldn't quite put his finger on lately.

A king sized bed, two chairs, a table, a small fridge and the microwave for a hundred and twenty five bucks a week. He paid four weeks at a time even though he didn't have to. Since he only got a check once a month, it was safer to have his room all paid. They changed the sheets and vacuumed the floor, but the sad air never seemed to circulate.

Though it had hummed fine when he first arrived, the microwave sounded broken. Frank's life was kind of like that; it used to just hum along and now there was a grinding noise in the background. It wasn't bad yet, but it was just enough noise that he knew it would eventually stop working. Worse was the feeling that something was missing, but not really knowing what. The timer dinged at him expectantly. Damn, he'd gotten so far in his head about the grinding that he'd forgotten until just then that he was hungry.

He jumped when the steam rolled out of the styrofoam container to nip at his fingers. From the dusty milk crate on the floor, he pulled out a roll of paper towel. After he had torn off a couple sheets and carefully folded the towels into layers, he stopped to wonder why he had wanted the towels. He might have just blown his nose and sat down again, but the oven door was ajar. He saw the steaming clamshell and remembered. Thoughts just didn't stay with him like they used to. They seemed to sneak up behind him, tap his opposite shoulder and then giggle when he got distracted.

He tugged the clamshell out over the paper towels like a hot pad. Frank carefully turned and walked the long way around the bed to where the table was. After tussling with the chair, careful not to bump the table where he'd set is his food down, he backed up to the chair. His old legs wouldn't let him sit down like a gentleman anymore, so he gingerly bent at the waist and knees, concentrated on lowering himself slowly. He grabbed at the chair's arms to make sure that he was aimed at it. About six inches above the chair, the ache in his knees got bad and his hips let go, he plopped into the chair. It wasn't good for the rest of him, especially his back, but it was the only way down.

He scooted the chair so that he couldn't see himself in the mirror. When he'd had a desk job he never liked facing the wall; though he'd had to a few times. If he happened to catch sight of himself in that big, corroded mirror, he felt like he was living in some kind of fish bowl. The last couple jobs Frank had weren't real jobs. They had just gotten an old man by for a time. He knew he had built things before and worked in a hospital once.

Steam rolled up off the noodles when Frank flipped open the container. Pork Lo Mein from Mark's. He liked Chinese food; didn't know why. It helped that Mark's was right next door. It was a ridiculous name for a Chinese place, but Amy, Mark's wife, talked a lot and was real nice. She and Mark were both actually Chinese, but had taken American names. Mark had been Mark for so long that even when he decided to open his own restaurant, it could only be Mark's. Frank was always more than welcome there and he didn't have to go far. Once, when he was sick, Amy had brought Hot and Sour Soup to him every day for a week. They even let him pay for the soup at the end of the month. There used to be a lot of people that came by, but Frank didn't think he saw too many of them anymore.

When he was loneliest, it was nice to have other tenants around, just to hear people walking outside or talking; sometimes yelling. Even the ones who were a little noisy weren't bad when Frank was having a rough night. There was a TV on the low dresser, but Frank almost never turned it on. He'd rather listen to the radio. He couldn't always remember the station he liked. Their tower was out behind a school and he could see it from the sidewalk outside his room, but no one had thought to post the frequency on the tower. Most days, he just listened to his neighbors outside and the noises at the edge of the city.

There was a neighbor who drove a truck and was only around a few days a month; a couple next door who always argued; even a mom and a couple kids in one of the rooms toward the office. Every once in a while, some hard looking guy would land there after just getting out of jail. Some of those guys were fine, but most of them kind of scared everybody. None of them stayed long.

One of the ex-cons had been real nice to Frank though. Jerry liked to talk about the meditation he had learned in prison. Really, he just liked to talk and told Frank all about having dropped out of school, the drugs and stuff, kidnapping that woman, and how he thought meditation had helped him settle down. Jerry had checked on Frank almost as often as anyone, then one day Jerry just never came back. Ben and Judith, the manager couple that lived out back, had to clean out the room and gave away what Jerry had left. Frank hadn't gone up to see the empty room.

Frank's room was a little dirty, but Vanny was coming tomorrow. He couldn't remember Vanny's whole name because he only called her Vanny. She had come from somewhere far away. He could tell she was Oriental but didn't want to hurt her feelings by asking about it again. Every week, Vanny came and changed the sheets, cleaned the bathroom and vacuumed a little. Once in awhile, he would give Vanny a little money to clean the little refrigerator out. There was never much in the fridge except cheap beer, leftover Chinese food and milk for his Mini Wheats.

Frank had been uneasy all day. He couldn't place it, but when he looked around the room, he felt out of sorts. Something nagged at the back of his mind. He was sure that something was missing but he couldn't think of what it was.

The Lo Mien cooled as Frank looked around the room. He had to start from scratch when he was having trouble remembering. The door was closed, the curtains drawn. He knew the carpet stain just inside the door. It was a simple square room but for the encroaching space of the bathroom. To the left of the bathroom was a nook with a counter and sink, and that mirror above them. On the wall opposite the bathroom was a rack to hang your clothes. The rack used to have those special hangers with just a little ball on top, but they were long gone and Frank's two coats hung off each end. Left of the rack was the microwave sitting on top the small fridge, then a nightstand, and the big headboard that hung from the wall rather than off the bed. Between the bed and the window, was the table where he sat.

He fidgeted, plinking at the edge of the stryofoam with a finger, trying to think. It seemed like the missing thing was something that he needed or that he had always had with him. A hollow feeling oozed into him when he thought he might never know. He couldn't remember stuff, how could he ever find it if he didn't know for sure that anything was gone? Frank had stewed on it long enough that he decided it was something precious. He knew that it was terribly important that he find whatever it was. His stomach grumbled and he felt sick just thinking about the missing thing. He looked down at the cool, congealed Lo Mein and realized he had been going to eat.

Frank pushed himself up off the chair to get a beer. He'd be up and down to the bathroom all night, but he needed another drink. Maybe it would quiet the nagging thoughts. It occurred to him to take a leak while he was up and he ambled slowly passed the foot of the bed. It was then that the little plastic orange caught is eye. It was sitting on top the television. When he had found the orange at the Goodwill store, someone told him it was used to catch fruit flies. It reminded him of Florida. He always thought he'd get to Florida. Frank just liked to look at it. He didn't have any damn fruit flies anyway.

Someone knocked on the door and scared him half to death. Nobody ever knocked. Well, Vanny knocked once a week when she cleaned but not this time of day. He turned toward the door and there was another knock.

“Mr. Frank, are you in there?” Vanny called.

Vanny. What is she doing here? He flipped the chain off the door and turned the knob. Vanny stood out on the cracked sidewalk with her granddaughter. The cute little kid had been cleaning with Vanny since Vanny's daughter started waiting tables again.

“Mr. Frank. So sorry. She took your boat.”

The little girl looked sheepish. As sheepish as a four year old could look when she knew she was cute enough to get away with almost anything. The little girl smiled at Frank with her glistening dark eyes.

The little ceramic boat was exactly what he'd been missing. It was a cartoon-looking tugboat sitting on a little patch of ocean waves; all primary colors, red and yellow, orange and blue. More than a little silly for an old man to keep around. On the port side, a ribbon banner floating across the waves said “Love You Boatloads.” Frank just stared.

Suddenly, he could remember the whole bit. He remembered a summer long ago and he remembered her. They had walked along the river at St. Joe arm in arm for weeks. More than a whirlwind romance, they met and were like old friends straight away. They were inseparable in a clichéd summer romance movie kind of way. Many couples reach a lazy kind of détente where neither is very happy but neither can imagine any other, better possibility. Lucky couples manage to settle into a casual joy. Deep in his gut, Frank remembered their unassuming, easy joy. His brain twisted and cramped to remember her name.

St. Joseph sat on a bluff over a beautiful white sand beach on Lake Michigan. The city had swanky boutiques, touristy souvenir shops and lots of restaurants. Frank knew they had eaten out all over town, but especially at the Chinese place. Frank was motionless as he fell deep into the moment he first saw the boat.

They had been eating Lo Mein and Spring Rolls in the middle of the afternoon. She had wanted to go into the shop next door. It was a garish tourist trap, but she had forgotten her sunglasses and wanted a cheap pair. Frank waited in the beach town sidewalk sunshine. Inside, she searched the racks for a reasonable looking pair of sunglasses among the bright colors, star shapes, and over-sized lenses. At the counter, while the clerk cut the tag off a pair she'd found, she noticed the tugboats.

Frank could still see her dance out of the store. She moved like an avatar. Her hair and her cotton dress flowed around her like an aura. The earth seemed to tilt to the gravity of her presence. She put a hand on his collarbone and her face shined up into his.

“I got something for you,” she said and presented him the tugboat.







“Mr. Frank. You OK?”

Vanny looked worried. The little girl strained as tall as her arms would reach, still holding the tugboat to him. Frank didn't know how long he had stood there. His legs were heavy, he'd become some sad statue built for all the broken hearts of the world. He smiled, more a grimace.

“Oh ... sorry ... thanks,” he managed to say.

“I should not have let her play with it, Mr. Frank. And then she took it home. We're sorry.”

“Vanny, I . . .” Frank struggled. “It's OK. Don't worry about it.”

Frank took the tugboat from the little girl. It felt as heavy as a medieval altar icon. He smiled at the little girl. She will break hearts someday he thought.

“OK, see you tomorrow. I just had to bring it back right away, Mr. Frank.”

“Thanks, Vanny,” he called after her as she walked back to her car, her bleach cracked hand on the girl's shoulder.

Frank carried the tugboat back to the dusty TV and placed it next to the plastic orange. Just as he set it down, he remembered the pain and the tug had suddenly glowed red hot. He could see the wrinkles on the chest of his shirt where she grabbed it in her fists, crying for him not to go. He thought she would change her mind and come along, but she just cried in the driveway as he left. She hadn't changed her mind at the last minute and he was stuck. It was a blindly selfish assumption and he had got it all wrong. He had never liked gambling but ended up betting his happiness on a sure thing that backfired.

Suddenly, the urgent need to pee. Frank struggled to get into the bathroom and undo the front of his pants. It was always like this now. He thought he was about to burst and then . . . nothing. He waited patiently, staring at the black and white tiles. There was no reason in straining. His prostate would let a little by in a minute. He chuckled about the “stolen” tugboat. There was one last little pain and he heard the pitter patter of relief. The worst was this tortured waiting, he thought.

Satisfied he had peed all that he was going to, Frank zipped his pants and walked back into his room. He grabbed a beer out of the fridge and shuffled to the radio. What was that damn station number? He nudged the dial one way and then the other until a decent sounding song crackled through the tiny speaker. He sat down at the table and shoved his half eaten supper out of the way. Cleaning up could wait.

Today was alright, he thought. Sipping at the beer, he threw his left foot over onto the edge of the bed. He felt kind of good today for some reason. Damned if he could remember exactly why, but he'd take it.